Instrument and place nouns in the Romance languages

Publication: Chapter in book/Conference proceedingEntry in encyclopedia


This article presents an overview of the evolution of the categories of instruments and place nouns from Latin to the Romance languages.
Even the most primitive hunter-gatherers occasionally had to give names to tools and places, and the need for instrument and place nouns has grown ever since in tandem with the unfolding of human culture. It is therefore no wonder that the majority of languages of the world, among them Latin and the Romance languages, have specific patterns of word formation to this effect. As is the case with other categories of word formation, those referred to with instrument noun and place noun do not constitute conceptually homogeneous sets, but sets of conceptually related subcategories. Instrument nouns comprise objects that can range from simple tools and gadgets to complex machines, but can also represent less prototypically instrumental objects like chemical substances or pieces of clothing and armor, as well as more abstract entities that are often referred to as means. Place names, in turn, cover subcategories as diverse as terrains, fields and groves, burrows, stalls and other buildings, countries, regions, and towns. Vessels represent a category located halfway between instrument and place nouns: an inkpot, for example, is an artifact designed to contain ink and as such close to an instrument, but can also be viewed as a place where ink is stored. Both instrument and place nouns can take as bases nouns and verbs, more rarely adjectives. This description of the two categories is essentially valid for both Latin and Romance. The category of place nouns has remained relatively stable at the conceptual level throughout the period considered here, although many changes can be observed for individual suffixes. Instrument nouns, by contrast, have suffered a major overhaul in the wake of the scientific and industrial revolutions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedias: Linguistics
Editors Mark Aronoff
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Pages1 - 27
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

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